Most owners of cars have probably heard of a service bulletin or a technical bulletin, but few have any idea of exactly what these creatures are or where they come from.
Service bulletins are among the most important pieces of information a consumer can have if there is a persistent problem with a new or used car. Service bulletins can provide answers unavailable elsewhere and alert consumers to secret warranties by manufacturers.
If you have a new car and it has developed a problem, chances are that it is not an isolated incident. Probably more than half of the owners of your model are having the identical problem, and the manufacturer's engineering organization knows all about it.
So, the manufacturer develops a proposed repair or a replacement part to fix the problem and then notifies its franchise dealers through a service or technical bulletin.
For example, say you have a 1987 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with power windows and your arm rest falls off. You probably think, "Oh, that must be an act of God." Well, it isn't.
According to a technical bulletin issued by GM, "the car may be one of those inadvertently manufacturered without a proper armrest fastener."
In other words, the bulletins contain a lot about how an auto maker proposes to remedy the situation. Clarence Ditlow, director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said service bulletins are a key source of information about secret warranties.
Service bulletins are one reason why a dealership mechanic, who has access to all the bulletins, has an edge over an independent garage. If he is unfamiliar with a problem, he can refer to the bulletins and find whether the engineers in Detroit or Tokyo have information that will save him time and the motorist money.
Technically complex problems are the real domain of service bulletins. For example, if your 1987 Firenza with a 2-liter engine overheats, it could have a sticking thermostat if it has a Vehicle Identification Number below K323793, according to a bulletin. In that case, GM has a new thermostat (Part No. 3059793) that will solve the problem.
Or if your 1986 Olds Customer Cruiser won't start and the mechanic thinks the battery is shot, you could be saved an unnecessary expense by bulletin 87-T-17, which advises that it could be a faulty voltage regulator.
Obviously, these bulletins are a wealth of information. But if you think car manufacturers would like to spread the wealth, think again.
It's not always easy to get service bulletins. Toyota, for example, simply will not provide them to motorists. GM owners, however, can obtain a free index of bulletins and, for a nominal fee the actual bulletins. The service is provided under a legal agreement GM signed with the federal government. Consumers can call (800) 551-4123 for more information.
Consumer Reports, the same publication that issues the annual report on auto reliability, has begun publishing a series of books documenting all the service bulletins on particular models. So far, it has issued the advisories on Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Chevrolets and Buicks.
These books contain answers for problems ranging from static in radio reception to rough idling in an engine. Unfortunately, the books cover only the GM lineup.
If your Cadillac smells like rotten eggs, these books have eight recommendations. To purchase one of the books, check your local bookstore or write to Consumer Reports Books, 9810 LeSaint Drive, Fairfield, Ohio 45014. Or call (800) 272-0722.
Another source of service bulletins is your friendly federal government. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration receives the service bulletins from all manufacturers and you can purchase them from the agency.
The information is available from the administration's technical reference division, which prefers that consumers call rather than write. The number is (202) 366-2768. The cost ranges from $20 to $30, depending on how many bulletins you request. You'll need to give your make, model and year when you call.